Health Information

Motor Vehicle Safety - Identifying High-Risk Situations

Children can get hurt when parents or caregivers do not properly restrain them when riding in a vehicle, or are unaware of the dangers associated with certain motor vehicle situations. However, using an appropriate child safety seat is one way to prevent these injuries.

High-risk situations may include, but are not limited to, the following:

Use of child safety seats in motor vehicles

Children are smaller than adults. Their smaller size means the standard safety belts in motor vehicles do not properly fit over the stronger parts of their bodies.

However, children between the ages of 4 to 8 years who have outgrown their child safety seat often are placed too soon in adult lap/shoulder belts, skipping the booster seat. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children should ride in a booster seat until they are 4 feet 9 inches (58 inches) tall, which normally occurs between the ages of 8-12 years. Until your child is big enough, he needs a boost. When used correctly, a belt-positioning booster seat can prevent injuries in a crash because it corrects the positioning of the adult seat belt across the child. Boosters are nearly 60 percent safer than seat belts alone.

Unfortunately, the 2009 National Survey of the Use of Booster Seats (NSUBS), found that while 96 percent of 1- to 3-year-olds were restrained in a child car seat, only 41percent of 4- to 7-year-old children were restrained in a booster seat.

Use of child safety seats

Many people think they have installed their child safety seat correctly and believe they are using it properly. However, studies have shown that the majority of child safety seats are found to be improperly installed and/or used when vehicles are stopped and checked. A child can suffer serious injury or death in a motor vehicle crash if the child safety seat is not properly installed or used.

Some of the most common mistakes in installing or using child safety seats include the following:

You should carefully read your vehicle owner's manual and the instructions that come with your child safety seat to ensure proper installation and use of the seat. Some child safety seats are not compatible with certain vehicles - try the child's safety seat in your vehicle before you purchase it. Also, place your child in the child safety seat before purchase, to ensure proper fit.

The danger of airbags

Airbags, when properly used with the vehicles' lap/shoulder safety belts, can save adult lives. However, airbags can increase the danger to a child's safety.

When infants in rear-facing child safety seats and children who are unrestrained are placed in the front seat with an airbag, they may be too close to an inflating airbag in the event of a crash. An airbag will inflate at speeds up to 200 mph, which can hurt passengers who are too close to the airbag. In addition, because of the child's size, the airbag can strike him on the head or neck, resulting in serious or fatal injuries.

To ensure your child is as safe as possible in a vehicle, never place her in front of an airbag. The safest place for children riding in vehicles is the rear seat, away from the impact of head-on crashes. If your child must ride in the front seat, move the seat as far back as possible, away from the airbag. If the car has no back seat, infants will only be safe in their rear-facing child safety seats if the vehicle has no airbag, or if the airbag has been switched off (an option in some vehicles). Remember, never place a rear-facing child safety seat in front of a passenger-side air bag.

Riding in the cargo area of trucks

Pickup trucks, although popular vehicles, may not be as safe as other vehicles for small children. Limited cab space often leads to parents letting their children ride in the cargo area.

Riding in cargo areas increases the risk of being thrown from the vehicle in a motor vehicle crash. When thrown from a vehicle, your risk of dying is 10 times greater, according to the National Child Passenger Safety Certification Training Program. Ejection (being thrown out) from the cargo area is the main cause of injury and death for cargo passengers. Covered cargo areas, too, can pose a danger to children because of carbon monoxide poisoning from exhaust fumes.

To protect your children, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommends that children never be allowed to ride or play in cargo areas of any vehicle.

Trunk entrapment

A child's nature is to explore his surroundings. Unfortunately, this exploration can place a child in danger. Unintentional trunk entrapment, when children lock themselves in a trunk, can be fatal due to hyperthermia (heat stroke) and/or asphyxiation (suffocation).

To prevent unintentional trunk entrapment, teach your children not to play in and around vehicles. Always lock the vehicle and keep the keys away from children. Carefully watch your young children when they are around vehicles. Keep rear fold-down seats closed inside the vehicle.

Certain automobile manufacturers now include escape releases or sensor systems in trunks. However, small children may not know how to operate these features.

Leaving children unattended in cars

According to a national survey done by the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety (ACTS), 45 percent of parents think it is “very unlikely” a child in their neighborhood could “die from the heat after being left alone in the car,” yet on average this occurs 38 times a year. As tempting as it may be, it is never okay to leave children unattended inside a vehicle, "even for a minute." Heat build-up inside a vehicle can quickly become fatal to children. The inside of a car acts like a greenhouse, a place no child should be alone. Because children’s bodies heat up by as much as five times faster than adults, this makes them much more susceptible to heat stroke. Also, when left unattended, children may be able to start the vehicle or put the vehicle in neutral.

Here are a few tips for prevention:

Reviewed by: Gina P. Duchossois, MS
Date: July 2011

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